South African vote rivals stage last rallies with ANC majority in balance

South African parties are gearing up for a final boisterous weekend of stadium rallies ahead of what is expected to be the most tightly contested general election in decades.

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The African National Congress of President Cyril Ramaphosa, 71, plans to fill a 90 000-seat Johannesburg stadium with yellow-clad supporters on Saturday, in a bid to reclaim lost support and avert its worst electoral showing ever.

ANC could lose its outright parliamentary majority

In power since the advent of democracy in 1994, the ANC is still projected to come out as the biggest party, but could lose its outright parliamentary majority for the first time.

Sliding under 50 percent would put it in uncharted waters, forced to find coalition partners to remain in power.

“Everybody is aware that change is in the air and voting this time will make a change,” said political analyst Sandile Swana.

“There’s going to be negotiation and this is not going to be like a regular election.”

Under the slogan “Let’s do more together”, the ANC has sought to play up its achievements during the campaign.

It is credited with winning freedom for all South Africans after decades of apartheid, building a vibrant democracy and lifting millions out of poverty by creating a broad social welfare system.

But many in the country of 62 million are fed up with high and still growing unemployment, currently at 32.9 percent, as well as rampant crime, corruption scandals, regular power cuts and water shortages.

The economy grew by a meagre 0.6 percent in 2023.

Opinion polls put the party of late anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela at about 40 percent, down from 57 percent at the last general election in 2019.

Stars and crowds

About 27 million people are registered to vote on May 29. They will elect the 400 members of the National Assembly, which then chooses the president.

The largest opposition group, the Democratic Alliance, polls below 25 percent.

Headed by John Steenhuisen, 48, a career politician advocating for liberal reforms including the privatisation of state-owned companies and the loosening of labour laws, it vowed to “rescue” South Africa and has formed a coalition with about 10 smaller parties.

The blue-branded DA will hold a rival rally featuring a “star-studded musical line-up” in Benoni, west of Johannesburg, on Sunday.

It is trailed in the polls by the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters of firebrand politician Julius Malema, and uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), a new party fronted by former president Jacob Zuma that threatens to take votes away from the ANC.

Both hover at around 10 percent and will rally crowds of supporters in the northwestern cities of Polokwane and Emalahleni on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Once an ANC stalwart, Zuma fell out with his former party after being forced from office in 2018 under a cloud of corruption allegations.

This week he was ruled ineligible to stand for parliament because of a previous conviction for contempt of court, but he remains his party’s leader and his face will still appear on the ballots, which have already been printed.

Detached multimillionaire

Analysts believe the MK will not overly suffer from his barring, which the party has used to portray itself as a victim of powerful foes bent on preventing it from winning.

Colourful and charismatic, 82-year-old Zuma still musters considerable support among part of the electorate that views Ramaphosa, a multimillionaire businessman, as too business-friendly and detached.

MK is expected to score big in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, an electoral battleground.

The controversy surrounding his eligibility had raised fears of violence, but the party has called for calm.

Rioting after Zuma’s brief 2021 imprisonment left more than 350 people dead.

Ramaphosa has said the security forces were ready to deal with “any threat of violence”.

By Garrin Lambley © Agence France-Presse